Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Suicide and organizations

I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles today, and the thoughts they provoked were not pleasant. One is a piece in The Guardian by Seamus Milne about the growth of ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the UK. With such contracts, workers are on standby to work, but with no guarantee of any actual work, and therefore payment, eventuating. In many cases, the contract forbids the person from working for anyone else either. Hailed by neo-liberals as an example of ‘flexible employment’, it is clear that all the flexibility is on the part of the worker. The consequent insecurity is obvious – no guaranteed income from week to week for a start, no pension or fringe benefits, no prospect of buying a home, difficult to sustain a family – in short, the full weight of the new insecurity I wrote about here a couple of months ago. And, although Milne does not make this connection, increasingly, there is little or no safety net, with recent clampdowns on benefits for the disabled in particular leading to a spate of suicides and an even greater upsurge in suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, as I noted in my book (p.117), suicide rates in Greece have risen alarmingly since 2009 (and the rise has continued since I wrote that)  and there can be little doubt that the cause of this is the social and psychological dislocation caused by the economic crisis.

Suicidal desperation is at the heart of Jenny Chan’s recently published paper entitled ‘A Suicide Survivor: The Life of a Chinese Worker’ in New Technology, Work and Employment. Unusually for an academic article, this is a powerfully written paper and it recounts the life of a Chinese worker who attempted suicide, apparently a growing trend.  We often here of the rise of the knowledge economy and new organizational forms which stress creativity and freedom, but the hidden heart of this economy is what Chan describes as “a production model apparently based on classic Taylorism” (p.88). The intense discipline of life on the line of an outsourcing company producing Apple's i-phones is described in chilling detail, culminating thus: “The accumulated effects of endless assembly line toil, punishing work schedules, harsh factory discipline, a friendless dormitory and, rejection from managers and administrators, compounded by the company’s failure to provide her with income, and then her inability to make contact with friends and family, were the immediate circumstances of her attempted suicide. Her testimony reveals how she was overwhelmed, ‘I was so desperate that my mind went blank’. At 8 a.m. on March 17, Yu jumped from the fourth floor of her dormitory building in despair. After 12 days in a coma, she awoke to find that her body had become half paralysed. She is now confined to a bed or a wheelchair” (p. 91). It is not just in harsh factory conditions that work-related suicides are found. For example, in 2008 and 2009 there was a wave of suicides amongst employees of France Telecom, with many leaving notes blaming work pressures in an organization undergoing massive restructuring.

Suicide is undoubtedly the most powerful and extreme act of the powerless and desperate, a complex response to, and creator, of trauma and its causes are equally complex, and varied. One part of its power is to make it almost undiscussable and, certainly, one should never draw glib conclusions from and about suicides. But, equally, as Salford University academics Jo Milner and Ian Cummins note (and give links to further research on), the links between suicide levels and social and economic conditions are well-established, and have been since at least the publication of Emile Durkheim’s  1897 book, Suicide. So it would certainly be glib to consign suicide to the realms of individual psychology. If we have global economic systems and associated organizational systems of work and welfare which engender suicide then we (including and perhaps especially those of us whose profession is the study of organizations) should not be shy of saying so. Terms like flexibility, welfare reform, global supply chain efficiency and organizational restructuring sound neutral and unexceptionable. What lies behind them may be horror.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Not smoking

In 2008 I published an article, with Jo Brewis, about workplace bans on smoking. It’s an interesting organizational issue. If the proverbial Martian visited a workplace in, say, 1980 and again today, one of the most noticeable things would be how cigarette smoke had disappeared between the two visits (and how smokers’ huddles outside the workplace had appeared). Smoking bans are also an organizational issue in that they are justified in terms of protecting workers from ‘passive smoking’ – so that although most public debate has been about the effects on leisure places like bars, the rationale is that these leisure places are in fact the work places of bar staff.

In our article, we suggested that the modern scientific and medical discourses of anti-smoking (i.e. that it is bad for smokers’ health and, supposedly, for non-smokers) were better understood as an inflection of a much more longstanding moral discourse about smoking and smokers: that ‘smoking is bad’ and ‘smoking is bad for your health’ were interlinked in complex ways. Historically, moral disdain for smoking long predates issues of health (see Ian Gately's book for detail). To give just a couple of examples: Murad the Cruel , ruler of the Ottoman Empire 1623-1640, had at least 25,000 suspected smokers put to death, whilst at about the same time in Persia those caught selling tobacco had molten lead poured down their throats; and in the 1920s employees of the Ford Motor Company were subjected to night time raids on their homes to check whether they were smoking – if so they had their wages docked or in some cases were sacked. Nor are smoking bans new: some German, Italian and American States had them in the mid-19th Century. The more contemporary hatred of smoking stems in part from its equation with death at a time of secularism. Given widespread acceptance that there is no afterlife, there seems to be a kind of fantasy that if only one does the right things, then death can be abolished at least for long enough until a cure is found. Smokers are an affront to this fantasy, and that is why no condemnation is strong enough for their presumption.

Five years on, this is more obvious than ever. Anti-smoking activists are seeking to expunge all references to, and images of, smoking, in ways that we predicted in the article. Because although at the time the avowed aim was simply a workplace ban, as Jo and I said in our article this coded a much more expansive ambition, which the UK’s former Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson revealed in 2007 to be the “complete de-normalization of smoking”. Of course the dangers of smoking are not in dispute. Those of secondary or passive smoking are rather more contentious, even though forming the basis of the smoking bans. But now anti-smoking activists condemn third hand smoking – the supposed dangers of smelling the clothes of someone who has recently smoked; and even fourth hand smoking – the idea that contact with a non-smoker who has had contact with a smoker is dangerous. At the same time, these activists have successfully pushed for images of cigarettes in films and cartoons to be expunged and for cigarette packets to be hidden from public view, with the current battle line being over plain packaging. The aim of these latter moves, ostensibly, is to discourage young people from taking up smoking even though the most basic knowledge of teenage psychology tells us that making something so taboo that it must be hidden away is to make it more attractive. But of course that justification is just, so to speak, a smokescreen. The real aim is to make smoking, which is perfectly legal in almost all countries in the world, well, de-normalized. The ultimate goal, presumably, is to make it illegal – a strategy which has, of course, worked very well with other drugs!

All this has now taken a remarkable new twist. In the wake of the smoking bans in many countries, more and more people have taken to ‘vaping’ – using electronic or e-cigarettes, which deliver a nicotine hit to their user but emit only harmless water vapour. One might expect anti-smoking activists to approve – these devices, after all, reduce cigarette usage. In fact, they object most vehemently. Which led to an interesting experience I had last week. Standing on my local First Capital Connect (FCC) train station platform I heard the now familiar announcement that smoking was forbidden. This, by the way, is on open-air platforms which are not, under UK legislation, obliged to ban smoking since they are not 'enclosed public places'. But let’s forget that lost battle and focus on the less familiar part of the announcement, which continued by saying that this included the use of electronic cigarettes. Intrigued, I checked the FCC website and it emerged that this ban on e-cigarettes had been introduced on 30th May 2013 “because they can unsettle other passengers and cause people to think that smoking real cigarettes is allowed”. It is difficult to imagine how e-cigarettes could ‘unsettle’ anyone. One wonders how many sensitive souls have complained to FCC, or if anyone has actually been duped by others’ use of e-cigarettes. In fact I wrote them an email asking, but their reply just repeated their policy without answering these questions.

In any case, it is an interesting principle that ‘unsettling behaviour’ should be banned, and we might wonder what its legal basis is. The answer may be alarming. In a statement FCC explained “that a bylaw, dealing with ‘unacceptable behaviour’, allowed it to ban the devices. The legislation states: ‘No person shall molest or wilfully interfere with the comfort or convenience of any person on the railway’”. I am sure that we can all think of things – mobile phone use, say, or i-pad gaming - that fall into this category rather more readily than e-cigarettes (indeed, the toilets on most FCC trains I have travelled on seem hardly conducive to 'comfort and convenience'). As a matter of fact, has even one person’s ‘comfort or convenience’ been interfered with by e-cigarettes? I also asked them that when I emailed them, but there was no answer.

The second part of FCC’s justification is that the British Medical Association wants e-cigarettes to be included in the smoking ban . This is a different issue, to do with whether they are harmful to those using them, as opposed to whether those seeing their use might be “unsettled”. It is a live debate and the clamour of the anti-smoking lobby to ban or regulate e-cigarettes is gathering pace. Thus, France is planning to ban their use in public, but not in private which is strange if the reason is supposed to be that they are dangerous to their users. But, at the moment, there is no such ban in place in the UK and it seems odd that FCC would introduce such a ban on its premises on the basis of the position of a particular lobbying group. Odd, indeed, that FCC should seek to concern itself with the still-disputed health effects of its customers’ habits. For, remember, no one, including FCC, is suggesting that e-cigarettes harm anyone else: ostensibly, the only question is whether they may harm their users, for which there is no evidence, as yet anyway. So what next? Will FCC require its customers to conform to other BMA campaigns, on diet and exercise for example?
Smokers still constitute at least 20% of the UK adult population (and, by the way, they contribute about four times in tax what they additionally cost the National Health Service). Perhaps a million UK adults use e-cigarettes. They, too, are amongst the customers of FCC. So what is going on? The key issue here is the idea that e-cigarettes might be “unsettling”: we have gone from a ban on cigarettes to a ban on things that ‘look like’ cigarettes, reflecting precisely the way that the anti-smoking movement has moved far away from anything remotely to do with science or rationality. Smoking at work is now banned but so too is not-smoking not at work, and this enforced not by government legislation but by the whimsical diktat of a commercial organization.